2017 News Stories

Teachers build robots, gain hands-on training at VEX STEM Robotics Teacher Training

Group Photo of participants at VEX Robotics Teacher Training

This summer, more than 40 educators participated in a week full of activities related to robotics and STEM education during the David C. Anchin Center's VEX Robotics Professional Development Teacher Training.

by Abby Rinaldi

TAMPA, Fla. (August 10, 2017) – In the College of Education, TECO Hall was alive with the buzz of machines and the laughter of teachers as a robot attempted to put a yellow cone on top of a pillar.

With the small cone in the robot’s grasp, a teacher controlling the robot carefully moved the analog sticks of a controller, inching the cone upward toward the top of the pillar. Those surrounding the arena’s cheers grew louder and louder, leaning in further and further as the cone reached for the top.

Suddenly, the robot leaned back on its two back wheels. The teachers gasped. Then, the robot fell backward, away from the pillar, with the cone still in its claw. A collective “aww” erupted from the audience, quickly followed by laughter and words of encouragement. The teacher bent down to pick up the robot, now standing straight upright, as the cone dangled in the air above it. 

VEX Robot used at teacher training

Teachers participating in the training worked with robotics equipment provided by VEX Robotics, an international robotics program for middle school and high school students. 

More than 40 educators participated in a week full of activities like this during the VEX Robotics Professional Development Teacher Training, a robotics training for current K-12 teachers hosted by the David C. Anchin Center at the USF College of Education.

In its first year, the training session was created to provide teachers with a hands-on experience that teaches them how to integrate robotics into their classrooms. Participating teachers were given starter kits provided by VEX Robotics, a provider of educational and competitive robotics products to schools, universities and robotics teams around the world.

The robotics kits were used throughout the week to help the teachers learn about the mechanical and programming aspects of operating and controlling the robots, so they could later teach these concepts to their students.

Stephanie Holmquist Johnson, PhD, president and CEO of Holmquist Educational Consultants, Inc. and a USF alumna who led the training session, said it is important that today’s students gain an education in pre-engineering or robotics to prepare them for the future and that it is equally important for teachers to be prepared to teach the curriculum.

Exposure to robotics also enforces science and math concepts for students of all grades.  Robotics, Holmquist said, is true Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education and allows for the integration of all subjects, including the arts.

“The participants were a very focused group and accomplished more than even we thought they would,” Holmquist said. “It is because of the partnerships created within the College of Education and the David C. Anchin Center that we are able to provide this kind of hands-on training to teachers. Together, we have created awesome.”

While not every participant had previous experience with the art of programming, the program provided them the opportunity to develop their skills and take what they learned back to their own schools. Adam Mack, a robotics instructor and trainer at Miami-Dade County Public Schools who assisted with the training session throughout the week, said through this program he has seen teachers who have very limited experience with robotics and programming become more comfortable with the subject and collaborate with their colleagues.

“I see the veteran teachers looking at it in a whole new way, having to help their colleagues develop their abilities,” Mack said. “I’ve seen a group of very, very diverse people – diverse backgrounds, diverse experience, different educational settings – come together as a group in a very excited environment to develop themselves as educators.”

Throughout the week, the teachers built robots, learned to program and gained access to resources and curriculum materials to support what they learned in the teacher training. They also discussed the various robotics competitions their students could participate in as they developed their robotics skills.  

Luis Santa-Cruz, a math and robotics teacher for grades 6 through 12 at Doral Academy in Miami-Dade County, already knew how to build and program prior to attending the training, but said the training was beneficial to him because he learned about developing a curriculum and how to integrate these skills into his classroom.

“I didn’t know about the (Robotics and Education) certification,” Santa-Cruz said. “I didn’t know about the engineering world and how fast it’s booming, so it actually gives some hope for all the cool things I can teach my kids and what I can get them into.”

Santa-Cruz created a robotics program at his school and said he preaches to his students about the diligence of engineering: the note taking, planning and observation skills necessary before they start building. He appreciated the fact that this training reinforced that.

Other teachers weren’t yet experts in programming and building before the training. Aline Wilson, an eighth grade science, robotics, art and history teacher at Myrtle Grove K-8 Center, said she initially felt the rest of the class was further along than her, but her time in the training has helped her to come to establish a solid foundation and understanding of not only the material but the frustrations her students might have along the way.

“(The training is) really great for me in that it’s providing me those foundation things that I need to know and do in order to be a better instructor for my students,” Wilson said. “… I will be a better robotics teacher this year.”

A part of the David C. Anchin Center’s dedication to STEM education, the summer institute is an initiative designed to increase teacher understanding of STEM so they can take that knowledge back to their students. The program is an ongoing initiative that the Anchin Center will host throughout the year for teachers both nationally and internationally.

Roger Brindley, Interim Dean for the College of Education and Vice President of USF World, said engaging experienced teachers in extending their skills within the STEM areas is a vital concern given the rapidly expanding role of technologies in today’s world, notably in the life experiences of the children we teach. Robotics, he said, is one opportunity to engage excellent teachers in extending their professional skills and the ways they think about technology in the classroom.

“K-12 education, and indeed higher education, has to prepare the next generation of leaders to use technologies in the next decade that have yet to be invented, and quite possibly have not been imagined yet,” Brindley said. “To embrace this task successfully teachers will be required to maintain an ongoing thirst for knowledge, an inquisitive and nimble mind, and a flexible philosophy for teaching, learning and associated pedagogies. My sincere thanks to all the teachers who took a week out of their summers and to Dr. Holmquist-Johnson for leading such an inspiring experience."

The goal for trainings like this one is to expand in order to reach across Florida and beyond, from elementary school to college, creating a pipeline in which students can succeed. The STEM field, Mack said, is present in all subjects, and the integration of all of these subjects can help students apply what they have learned to accomplishing their goals.

“Instead of just learning to be able to solve a mathematical problem, you now are able to apply your mathematics in a larger, project-based activity, along with your sciences and your technologies and your engineering, as a whole,” he said. “It ties everything together instead of just teaching isolation in this little box. It now teaches students how to use all these (lessons) that we’ve taught them in their classes to think outside the box.”

About the USF College of Education:

The USF College of Education is accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (formerly NCATE), and is fully approved by the Florida Department of Education. The USF College of Education is ranked by U.S. News & World Report as one of the top 100 programs in the nation, as well as in the top 30 for online graduate education programs. The USF College of Education has more than 51,000 alumni who are making a difference in the lives of children each day.